Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Each MLS team's breakout player candidate in 2022

Ok, it’s time to start ramping up our countdown-to-first-kick coverage, and rolling out our suite of season preview content. Here is the first from me, my annual look at each team’s most likely potential breakout player.

Bear in mind I have no real idea of which players are going to get the call and answer the bell, especially since this transfer window isn't closed yet, and then there's another entire transfer window open in the middle of the MLS season. A lot of things can and will change, but it remains a fun thought exercise to look at each team's roster and try to identify some hidden gems. So let's throw some darts.

Per usual, I'm automatically ruling out first-year players and Designated Players for what I feel are obvious reasons. Reverse alphabetical order for fun:

Why he'll break out

  • 1v1 defense
  • Improved passing

Ranko’s maybe the best 1v1 defender in the league among center backs – Second Spectrum’s tracking data makes this case pretty well – and so putting him in the middle of that back five allows the wide center backs to take more risks and be more aggressive with their positioning, because they know Ranko’s covering behind them.

This is not a play more than a bare handful of MLS CBs can make:

His distribution from the middle of that back three was more hit-and-miss, but with a full preseason in the role under Vanni Sartini and a skillful, active midfield in front of him, I’m guessing Ranko’s going to hit something close to his potential.

What’s his upside this year: Best XI

Last year’s breakout player: Brian White

Why he’ll break out

  • Pure goal-scoring center forward with fantastic movement
  • Surrounded by high-level attacking talent
  • Bob Bradley loves developing players

By my reckoning, Ayo would’ve already broken out and become a 20-goal scorer if he hadn’t had miserable luck with injuries over the past two years. TFC made a significant investment in him anyway, spending their only available U22 Initiative slot on him – which was absolutely the right call. If he’s healthy, he’ll feast.

What’s his upside this year: 20 goals and a ticket to Qatar.

Last year’s breakout player: Ralph Priso (kinda)

Why he'll break out

  • Roger Espinoza-like engine for the Espinoza role
  • Was earning more minutes last year before his suspension

Hernandez, a Colombian-American who came through one of Sporting’s satellite affiliates and is technically a Homegrown, worked himself into the first team in 2020 and was just pushing his way into more minutes in 2021 when he self-reported placing wagers on a pair of MLS matches and was subsequently suspended for the rest of the season. Last month he was reinstated.

I’m glad he was reinstated. It was a bad mistake, but he paid for it and has hopefully learned from it.

I’m also glad because I simply enjoy watching him play soccer. Hernandez is nasty as hell, chews up ground, wins the ball and transitions quickly from defense to attack. He really does remind me of a young Roger, and that is pretty damn high praise.

What’s his upside this year: Full-time starter and lots of Sporting fans telling anyone who’ll listen (and anyone who won’t) how underrated he is. And maybe a future January USMNT call-up.

Last year’s breakout player: Daniel Salloi

Why he’ll break out

  • A true winger for a team about to switch back to a 4-2-3-1
  • You gonna bet against Seattle’s scouting?

The truth is I haven’t really seen enough of Chu to be entirely confident about this based upon the eye test. He got on the field last year for just 150 minutes, and almost all of that came for a team playing in a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-2-1. It’s not fair to assess him given that sample size and the role differential.

But it seems very likely Brian Schmetzer is going back to a 4-2-3-1 this year, and while I don’t think Chu’s going to be a full-time starter, he’s clearly going to be asked to play a big role in backing up Jordan Morris and Albert Rusnak.

And the simple fact is guys who the Sounders invest time and money into usually succeed.

What’s his upside this year: Who knows? But if I was a Sounders fan I’d be pretty happy with something like 5g/4a in 1500 minutes, and a bigger role at the end of the year than at the start.

Last year’s breakout player: Alex Roldan

Why he'll break out

  • Consistent goalscorer for years whenever he’s had the chance to play as a center forward
  • Monstrous in the air, and playing for one of the most cross-heavy teams in MLS

At age 25, Ebobisse is finally entering the season as a starting No. 9 after being miscast for years as a winger in Portland. He’s already had a double-digit goals season when playing primarily on the wing, but also showed the ability to learn in his brief time up top.

He makes much better runs now, and we saw a lot of that in his time with the Quakes last year even if he didn’t quite find his finishing boots.

He’ll find them this year, but Ebobisse’s the type of center forward who elevates the attack even when he’s not putting the ball in the net.

What’s his upside this year: Something like 15+ goals and seven or eight assists, and me writing a lot of columns about how either the US or Cameroon should bring him to the damn World Cup.

Last year’s breakout player: Tanner Beason (seriously! He was awesome!)

Why he'll break out

  • Midfield metronome who’s grown into a prominent role
  • Entering his prime and has year-to-year continuity of role and coach

Is Ruiz a glorious passer of the ball who sometimes daydreams, which causes defensive problems? Yes. Is it worth it to get him out there anyway? Yes.

Put him next to the right partner and suddenly he’s an Anibal Godoy-esque weapon, and my hope is that 1) RSL sign Gustavo Cuellar, and 2) Cuellar is the right partner.

What’s his upside this year: He’s a former Argie youth national team player, but a return to the international fold is too much to hope for. He could turn into RSL’s own Godoy, though, which would be damn nice.

Last year’s breakout player: Aaron Herrera

Why he'll break out

From what I’ve seen Moreno is a pure winger, which doesn’t make him a like-for-like sub for Blanco. But if Blanco is out, then most likely Yimmi Chara will be moving inside from the wing, and Moreno is the next logical fill-in.

The other thing to consider is it’s entirely possible he outplays Dairon Asprilla and wins a starting job outright.

What’s his upside this year: A Cristian Espinoza-type of season where he just creates chance after chance after chance after chance after chance…

Last year’s breakout player: Dairon Asprilla

Why he'll break out

  • Huge engine makes him a natural for a two-forward set-up
  • Union are the best talent developers in the league

This kid was an Argentine youth national team player and a regular in the Argentine Primera as a teenager. He checks most boxes you’d want physically, and while he’s not exactly polished, he wasn’t exactly lost out there, either. And yet we basically never got to see this from Carranza in Miami:

Carranza is a creature of the box, but because that Miami roster was so poorly constructed he never really got to play that kind of role in Fort Lauderdale.

So now he’s with the Union, playing for a team that creates a million box entries – fifth in the league last year, as per Second Spectrum. They just didn’t have a forward who consistently finished them.

It’s a very snug fit, and word is Carranza’s been amazing in preseason.

What’s his upside this year: I wouldn’t be at all shocked at 15 goals and Ernst Tanner delightedly exercising that purchase clause they got inserted as part of the one-year loan he's on from Miami.

Last year’s breakout player: Jack Elliott

Why he'll break out:

  • A north-south player who provides box danger for the wing, which Orlando otherwise lack
  • Plays with Paul Arriola-ish two-way energy

At least for now it seems like Michel is a bit ahead of Silvester van der Water on the winger depth chart, which is good for him and also good for Orlando City. They need Michel out there because he attacks space and gets in the box like a stretch-the-line forward, and one of the things that killed Orlando last year was not getting enough numbers into the box.

Obviously his finishing needs to be better this year, but being in the right place at the right time is a good foundation to build off of.

What’s his upside this year: I could see him flirting with double-digit goals, especially if Facundo Torres is dominating down the opposite flank and opening up the box for Benji to make back-post arrivals. Throw in four or five assists as well, and that’d be a damn fine season.

Last year’s breakout player: n/a

Why he'll break out

  • Sean Davis’s departure opens playing time at Amaya’s best spot
  • Has shown the ability to play that role at a high level in the past

I’ve written elsewhere a million times I think Amaya’s a midfield ball-winner/backline shield rather than a creator. And with Davis gone there are minutes to be had in that role, and no one else on the roster seems to be a better fit to win them.

Bear in mind when Amaya was playing that deeper role in Cincinnati, Gregg Berhalter called him up for the USMNT and Tata Martino showed interest with El Tri. Amaya wasn’t a lock, national team-caliber guy as a No. 6, but he was at least a “let’s kick the tires on him” type, which he’ll never be as a No. 10.

For RBNY’s sake, let’s hope he realizes that this year himself.

What’s his upside this year: Upper-middle-class man’s Ozzie Alonso, which would make him a borderline top-five d-mid in MLS and renew some national team interest.

Last year’s breakout player: Sean Nealis

Why he'll break out

  • Written-in-pen starter at right back
  • Already showed what he could do in the playoffs

Gray was very good in the postseason, and showed more comfort pushing up game by game. Here, have a taste:

Nobody’s going to mistake him for Anton Tinnerholm, but Gray clearly knows the runs to make and when to make them. And so you get sequences like the one above, which is a classic Tinnerholm play and came in just the fifth start of Gray’s professional career, on the road against the record-setting Supporters’ Shield winners. He then went on to become the second-youngest starter in MLS Cup history, and acquitted himself well.

Ronny Deila’s system asks a lot of the fullbacks. In a small but compelling sample size, Gray has delivered.

What’s his upside this year: About 3,000 solid minutes across all comps with a half-dozen assists would probably have everybody in the Bronx smiling.

Last year’s breakout player: Taty!

Why he'll break out

  • Good in limited minutes in 2021
  • Packed schedule means squad rotation

Twice last year Bruce Arena made a concerted effort to get Bell minutes, giving him a run of starts in late spring, and then working him into the lineup a bit down the stretch after Bell had missed some time with injuries. Arena was typically blunt when asked why, saying that they wanted to get Bell – who was in his first year in the league – reps so that he’d be ready in case the Revs needed him in the playoffs.

It is fair to expect a reprise of that role, though with more minutes since the Revs will have more games. Whether that counts as a true breakout season or not, I’ll leave it up to you. But what matters is that Bell is good and is likely going to get more chances to prove it in 2022.

Bear in mind if Bruce switches to a back-three, then Bell could very well be a starter. But I think that’s unlikely (even though I think it’s, on paper, New England’s best formation).

What’s his upside this year: Pushes Henry Kessler and Andrew Farrell for their starting jobs.

Last year’s breakout player: DeJuan Jones

Why he'll break out

  • Won the starting job midway through last year and has held onto it
  • Surrounded by veterans who make the job easier

Maher took a big step forward in his second year, winning a starting job and becoming a foundational piece of one of the best defenses in MLS. He made such a strong case that Nashville’s front office was happy to ship out Alistair Johnston and buy out Miguel Nazarit, two other young defenders who would’ve competed with Maher for minutes to one extent or another.

Maher is big and pretty athletic, as well as a tidy passer. He doesn’t do anything spectacular, but he’s consistent and almost never takes anything off the table. Coaches like center backs like that.

What’s his upside this year: Can he push into All-Star or Best XI or USMNT discussions? Probably a stretch for 2022, but he’s got that kind of talent, and will spend most of his minutes playing next to someone who knows that exact path very, very well.

Last year’s breakout player: Alistair Johnston

Why he'll break out

  • Had 7g in 900 minutes last year
  • Improved his xG per shot by damn near 50% to Raul Ruidiaz territory

This is maybe the most obvious breakout candidate in MLS. Toye was the leading domestic goalscorer and fourth in the league with those seven goals before his season was cut short by injury.

What made this goalscoring binge different from the one he flashed in 2019 with Minnesota is that this binge was only supplemented by the occasional banger, whereas his 2019 streak was built entirely of bangers, and was thus unsustainable. Those bangers still exist, of course, but I care so much more about this:

Stuff like setting up CBs with his off-the-ball work and finding high-quality, one-touch finishes are what the best goalscorers in the league do. If he can find a dozen of those goals, and three or four bangers, and two PKs…

What’s his upside this year: 15-20 goals and serious discussion about a trip to Qatar.

Last year’s breakout player: Djordje Mihailovic

Why he'll break out

  • Utility guy who’s finally getting a chance to play his best position full-time
  • Has the two-way components that make people take notice

Dotson’s played left back, right back, box-to-box midfield and d-mid. It looks like, this season, he’ll be in that go-everywhere-and-do-everything box-to-box role, for which he is built (at least IMO). In a lot of ways, it’s that simple.

Beyond that, though, Dotson is just an eye-catching player. He makes big, noticeable challenges, and huge, lung-bursting runs. He can smack a big switch, and he scores bangers. If he’s playing well, you’ll notice it because he’ll make the kinds of plays that get people talking.

What’s his upside this year: Very good starter for a very good team.

Last year’s breakout player: n/a

Why he'll break out

  • Not learning a position anymore, he’s playing the position he’s been in since 2020
  • Better structure around him than in past seasons

I still think Robinson is a No. 9, but because Miami’s initial roster construction was so bad he’s basically never gotten a chance to play that spot. So instead he’s been miscast as kind of a winger and kind of a halfspace merchant, and has never really been comfortable in either role.

Well, it’s now Year 3 for him in that spot, so it’s fair to expect significant improvement.

What’s his upside this year: If things go right I could see him making a run at double-digit goals.

Last year’s breakout player: n/a

Why he'll break out

  • Genuinely thought he was the best CB on the team last year
  • Hits a very nice diagonal that will be useful for a team with a million speedy wingers

I have to admit I think it’s kind of unlikely that DePuy wins the starting job – the Galaxy have invested too much in the imports to give up on them. That said, he’s the only guy in that center back corps who does stuff like this:

More to the point, though, the gap between DePuy and Derrick Williams or Sega Coulibaly is much smaller than the gap between Efra Alvarez and Douglas Costa, or Adam Saldana and Mark Delgado. I just think it’s likely DePuy’s going to get that opportunity the other guys don’t.

What’s his upside this year: Solid starter.

Last year’s breakout player: Julian Araujo

Why he'll break out

  • He’s playing as a d-mid, I think?
  • He’s really good!

Ok, we all know who Kellyn Acosta is – the dude already has like two separate breakout half-seasons under his belt. But those came as an 8, which is the position he’s played most of his career.

He’s been pretty ok there. Sometimes better than that, sometimes worse, but on the aggregate… pretty ok.

When he’s played as a 6 with the USMNT? In a half-dozen appearances there, including against Mexico, he’s been excellent five times. I’ve got to think LAFC paid what they did to play him in that role (a spot they need to fill after selling Eduard Atuesta this winter) as opposed to just stocking up on 8s.

What’s his upside this year: Best XI. I mean it.

Last year’s breakout player: n/a

Why he'll break out

  • Productive in limited minutes last year
  • New system is likely to feature chalk-on-the-boots wingers with pace

Pasher has a longer history as a super-productive goalscoring, playmaking winger in USL, and he showed more than just glimpses of that last year before seeing most of his season lost to injury. If he can stay healthy the guys around him on the depth chart are guys he can beat for minutes. And if he gets on the field, he can even push his way onto John Herdman’s radar.

What’s his upside this year: Solid starter.

Last year’s breakout player: n/a

Why he'll break out

  • Path to playing time has been cleared
  • Has the on-ball ability to catch notice

If Kevin Paredes was still here it’d be him, but since he’s gone I’ll go with Paredes’ fellow 2003 academy teammate. Nyeman’s got Nagbe-esque ball-security and a Yueill-esque ability to pick long balls, and with Felipe and Junior Moreno gone (for now, at least), a clear path to playing time.

He’ll still need to work on the physical parts of the game, especially in defense. He doesn’t recognize transition moments quickly on that side of the ball and can be physically manhandled even when he does.

But it seems pretty clear he’s gonna get a chance to win the job with United, and if he does, he’s got the ability to do some special things once it’s his.

What’s his upside this year: Solid starter to the point he inspires some dual national panic.

Last year’s breakout player: n/a, weirdly. They had a bunch of guys with bounceback years – Ola Kamara, Julian Gressel, Russell Canouse, Andy Najar – but that’s not really the same as a breakout year.

Why he'll break out

  • Finally playing in the interior as a No. 8/No. 10
  • Is just super damn good when he can play his best spot

Took the first hurdle by putting together a mostly healthy and occasionally effective 2021.

Now he’s back in central midfield – his actual position – and apparently putting in Man of the Match performances in preseason.

Don’t forget what he’s capable of in terms of ball-winning and especially ball progression when playing centrally:

Pomykal’s a modern midfield general, which is something Dallas sorely lacked last year.

What’s his upside this year: Best XI and a trip to Qatar.

Last year’s breakout player: Ricardo Pepi or Jesus Ferreira, take your pick.

Why he'll break out

  • Elite at finding one-touch finishes in the box
  • Has superb physical tools for the job

Berry is big, fast and strong – the type of forward defenders bounce off of – but also, he’s so much more than his physical attributes. He makes great runs and shows a ton of composure in the box, and just has a nose for the goal:

It’s worked for Gyasi for years, and in a small sample size it worked great for Berry last year. It’s not too hard to even imagine him pushing Gyasi for playing time, especially since they’re very similar players.

What’s his upside this year: Wins the starting job and hits double-digit goals.

Last year’s breakout player: n/a

Why he'll break out

  • Finally seems to be entering the season as a starter
  • Career goals/90 rate is elite, and underlying numbers agree

I had Lewis here last year. He rewarded me with a good season (7g/2a in a career-high 1300 minutes, and the underlying numbers liked his year even more), but once again wasn’t a starter.

Maybe that was because of the competition for minutes, or maybe it was because he missed so much of the first half of last year first with the US U23s in Olympic qualifying, and then with the full USMNT at the Gold Cup. Either way, it ate into his playing time.

Well there’s less competition for playing time in attack this year, and there’s no longer any worry about being called up for international duty. The job is pretty clearly his to lose.

What’s his upside this year: He could double his minutes and double his total goal contributions, right? 14g/4a would be a very, very nice season.

Last year’s breakout player: Auston Trusty

Why he'll break out

  • Finally healthy again
  • New team, but a role and a scheme he’s familiar with

Lindsey was supposed to be Graham Zusi’s heir apparent, but his career was repeatedly derailed by injuries. Now he’s home, and while he’s not a guaranteed starter – Harrison Afful is the other RB in Charlotte – there are minutes to be had.

What’s his upside this year: Full-time starter.

Last year’s breakout player: n/a

Why he'll break out

  • Had good chemistry with Brenner
  • Likely to be playing in a two-forward system

I’d written Vazquez off several years ago, as had pretty much everyone else, but he was really good down the stretch last year with 4g/2a in his final 450 (or so) minutes. He  won’t keep up that level of productivity, but two forwards who have an amplifying effect on each other’s skillset… that kind of thing is valuable, and is not the type of chemistry any players on FC Cincinnati have ever shown.

Gustavo Vallecilla is probably a safer choice here, especially since it’s not clear at all that Pat Noonan is going to go with a two-forward lineup, and it’s definitely not clear that Vazquez would be preferred to Dom Badji or Calvin Harris if he does.

What’s his upside this year: Starter.

Last year’s breakout player: n/a

Why he'll break out

  • Slotting into a straight-forward role in a straight-forward system
  • Was really good last year but no one noticed b/c the Fire were really bad

I’m accustomed to having to talk myself into Fire signings. I’m not accustomed to being damn near blown away from the first time I watch them play, but that was the case with Navarro. First and foremost he’s a pest, but he’s also hard as hell in the classic Argie way, and pretty skillful to boot. It wouldn’t shock me if we were talking about him as a top-five d-mid in MLS by the end of the year.

The fit next to Gaston Gimenez is pretty snug. Gimenez has shown pretty clearly he’s happy to sit in front of the defense and clean up messes, but isn’t wildly enthusiastic about running anywhere. So if Gimenez is doing that, that frees up Fede to go out hunting, cause havoc and win the damn ball.

It should work.

What’s his upside this year: “It wouldn’t shock me if we were talking about him as a top-five d-mid in MLS by the end of the year.”

Last year’s breakout player: n/a

Why he'll break out

  • Showed well even as the rest of the team struggled
  • System encourages him to push forward in attack

Kolmanic started 23 times last season, and that’s on top of 44 prior professional appearances. In all the 21-year-old’s played about 6,000 pro minutes, which is a very nice foundation to build a strong year upon.

Helping the situation is that Austin look a little more balanced this year, and a little bit better able to withstand turnovers. Kolmanic, in 2021, spent so much time desperately retreating as the midfield got shredded in transition that he wasn’t able to get forward with the type of regularity that Josh Wolff’s scheme called for, and thus wasn’t able to make the kind of consistent attacking impression that was advertised.

I think that’ll change to a degree in 2022.

What’s his upside this year: Top 10 left back in the league and a breakthrough into the Slovenian national team.

Last year’s breakout player: Brad Stuver

Why he'll break out

  • Gave good minutes last year in his first extended MLS action
  • Playing in a more straight-forward, simpler system in 2022

Campbell put in about 10 solid hours as a 20-year-old and is likely in line for more in 2022, as he’ll start the year third on the CB depth chart. That won’t mean a ton of starts right away or potentially at all – depending upon injuries, of course – but whenever one of Alan Franco or Miles Robinson needs a rest, Campbell’s the next man up. And if Gonzalo Pineda does a reprise of the 3-4-2-1 (unlikely, but not impossible), then Campbell may suddenly become a starter.

What’s his upside this year: 1,000 all-competition minutes and some breathless Scuffed projections about his role with the 2024 US U23s in Olympic qualifying.

Last year’s breakout player: George Bello